A Liberal Is More Frustrating Than a Libertarian, Research Time, 08/10/2014

For all that I’ve criticized Nozick, for all that in the Utopias manuscript I’ll criticize the ideas he expressed, and for all I’ll criticize the libertarian movement for which he supplied so much of the modern philosophy and ideology, there are still times when I read Robert Nozick and I say, “You’re damn right, Bob.”

John Rawls was also something of a baseball fan.
Most of those times occur in his extended critique of John Rawls. I was first exposed to Rawls in the same political philosophy class that Evan Simpson taught me at Memorial University, where I first learned about Nozick. I have since met many dedicated Rawlsians, people who have devoted their academic careers to the exegesis and applications of Rawls’ political and moral theories to problems and situations he never approached during his long career. 

This includes my former colleague P, who I knew when he was doing his MA at McMaster, writing a thesis applying a Rawlsian philosophy to the politics and morality of climate change. Although I sometimes think he played up his Rawlsianism a little extra when we spoke about this stuff just to annoy me (just as I would diss Rawls’ ideas in our conversations with a little extra spite just to annoy him), the man genuinely believed in the philosophy of Rawls, and was damn good at his applications of it.

As for me? I read A Theory of Justice all the way through in 2007 and hated damn near every word. And even though I fundamentally disagree with Nozick’s entire philosophy as well, he and I actually share the same problems with Rawls’ ideas.

The John Rawls that everybody learns is the framework of the central conceptual arguments of A Theory of Justice, the original position and the difference principle. 

Original position. You can discover the most just arrangement of a society if you abstract away every aspect of yourself that constitutes any factors which give you a morally un-earned advantage over everyone else, because then you’ll work out an arrangement of society where even the least advantaged are doing alright, as you might turn out to be that least advantaged person when you zap back into material existence.

Difference principle. The principle by which society is organized such that the only inequalities, or differences among people, that exist are those which, in their systematic role, actually prevent people from being worse off in an ostensibly more equal arrangement. 

I rather love Nozick’s critique of the difference principle, an extended version of “WTF, mate?”. If you’re an egalitarian, you believe people should be entirely materially equal. So working out precisely what inequalities result in a better overall arrangement is paradoxical at best for an egalitarian. I know Rawls has a huge number of examples of such inequalities in A Theory of Justice, but none of them ever convinced me. At worst, an egalitarian who believes in Rawls’ difference principle expends his rhetorical energies trying to justify the injustices of our current era, defending the status quo in the name of some egalitarian ideal that a material inequality serves. 

Because I’m not an egalitarian. Being broadly left-wing, socialist, and a believer in network politics doesn’t imply egalitarianism on my part. And believing that society should be fair doesn’t define that fairness in terms of an egalitarian goal. I’m very Nietzschean about this: people are not equal, and some are better than others at various tasks and talents, and we can also be ethically better than each other. Injustice is when petty, resentful, slimy people who are worthy only of contempt become the most powerful men (and they are almost always, always men) in a society.

I sometimes think Rawls' digs at basketball were disguised
digs at Nozick because of the fame of his thought
experiment based on Wilt Chamberlain being awesome.
I believe in the correctness of Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain example: the super-talented entertainer who earns far more than his team-mates by collecting tips from customers who come specifically to see his performance. Superior talent and skill should be rewarded. I disagree with Nozick in that I believe very few material inequalities in our society genuinely arise from differences in talent and skill (unless that skill is in cheating tenants, defrauding job applicants and the elderly, or collapsing pension funds through manipulative financial chicanery). 

Nozick’s critique of the original position is essentially exactly the same as the one I arrived at on my own, before having read his work. Humanity is a historical creature. You can’t understand what is relevant to achieving justice for a historical creature if you build your conception of justice by abstracting entirely from our histories. Rawls’ concept of justice is an egalitarian principle in which everyone is treated, ultimately, the same. 

But difference is real, and it is not something to be annihilated. The difference he has in mind is the difference in wealth holdings that have developed through a series of free exchanges, while I focus on differences in identity and morality, but our eyes are both on the historical nature of humanity.

That’s why I very much enjoy Nozick’s argument against the supposedly self-evident truth of egalitarianism. It’s a touch of pure rhetoric, but it’s fantastic on its own. 

Instead of writing an argument justifying his belief in historicized difference over what’s so often taken to be intuitively correct egalitarian politics, he challenges the egalitarians to finally come up with an argument for the truth of egalitarian moral priorities, no longer just presuming its self-evident truth.

After all, self-evidence and intuitiveness to human feelings has never been a good guide to truth.

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